Ginola's virtues lack the purpose that set Best apart

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The Independent Football

Within reach of the machine that is mispelling these words hangs an autographed sketch of George Best by the distinguished artist Harold Riley. It shows Best at the zenith of his powers, swerving away from the Liverpool full-back Chris Lawler to probably set up one of those moments that established him as a truly great footballer.

Within reach of the machine that is mispelling these words hangs an autographed sketch of George Best by the distinguished artist Harold Riley. It shows Best at the zenith of his powers, swerving away from the Liverpool full-back Chris Lawler to probably set up one of those moments that established him as a truly great footballer.

Best seems to be getting mischievous amusement out of Lawler's obvious, straining discomfort. There's just the beginning of a smile on his lips; there's devilment in his dark eyes. But there is purpose there too, strong, swift, deadly.

I mention this because Best's name recently came up in connection with the ongoing debate over David Ginola, whose recent transfer from Tottenham Hotspur to Aston Villa again raises the question of whether he is one of the game's leading players or merely a decorative artist. In an autobiography to be published next month Ginola confirms that his relationship with the Tottenham Hotspur manager, George Graham, was subject to frequent emotional disturbance and became impossible when he was not even included among the substitutes for a pre-season friendly against Birmingham.

Where Ginola stands in the game moves each according to his or her nature. The habitually romantic see him as a handsome, glittering star who is alone worth the admission money, his skills a pleasing antidote to the Premiership's urgency. But what they see is not what others see.

While admiring Ginola's natural gifts, his exceptional balance, touch and imagination, even old players of an artistic bent call him into question. What, they ask, and even the Frenchman's most fervent devotees might find this difficult to answer, does he achieve? On the evidence of statistics, which admittedly is not always the best way to judge a footballer, not enough. Only four goals last season and not as many direct assists as people might imagine.

Based loosely on flair, a comparison with Best is ridiculous. In Manchester United's colours, Best, who could be irritatingly self-indulgent, scored 178 goals in 466 games, a remarkable record for a winger who, when fully fit, involved himself fully in collective effort.

That Ginola and Graham proved incompatible came as no surprise but it was not simply an isolated case of conflicting values as Kenny Dalglish proved moving the Frenchman on from Newcastle.

This is where assessments diverge. On the one hand that of people who are charmed by Ginola's mesmeric dribbling (especially the chattering class that came late to the game and members of the chat-show culture), on the other anyone who holds firmly the belief that a consistently decisive contribution is central to greatness in football.

The most striking thing to me about this turmoil of opinion is the failure of Ginola's fans to address the issue of why he was passed over by his national team in its advance towards the World and European Championships.

There is an echo here of Len Shackleton, a marvellously gifted and inventive inside-forward who made only a handful of appearances for England when adored by the supporters of Newcastle and Sunderland. The great entertainer's refusal to conform was a great disappointment for England's manager of the time, Walter Winterbottom. "If only he'd come half-way to meet me," Winterbottom said, sadly.

In his dealings with Ginola, a similar problem existed for Graham. On taking over at White Hart Lane he saw in the Frenchman a marvellous footballer who could not be faulted in training and was probably the club's best athlete. So what produced the profound shift of sympathy that made Ginola superfluous to Graham's requirements at the risk of alienating many of Tottenham's supporters? "It was never one thing," he insisted when we spoke last week. "He had some terrific games for us and as a spectator I would find him tremendously exciting. But he has his own way of playing and found it difficult to accept that there is work to be done when he hasn't got the ball."

Anyone who regards that as a notion typical of Tottenham's stern manager should think about these two questions. If still in the flower of his youth, would Ginola be coveted by Brazil or Manchester United? Since both answers are probably in the negative, it would take a convincing advocate indeed to make out a substantial case for him.

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